The Fountain of Youth
Ponce De Leon was about 600 years too soon when he came to Florida looking for the fountain of youth.
Just ask Raymond Fisher.
Not that Raymond would answer. But we'll get to that.
As for Ponce, well, he was doomed in his quest, because back in 1513, they didn't know anything about baseball. Forget about quantum mechanics and black holes and paradoxes. If you want to see people go back in time, watch a baseball game at the Roy Hobbs World Series in Fort Myers, Florida. You'll see men in their 60's and 70's and 80's become 10-year-olds again. (Albeit 10-year-olds with pacemakers and knee replacements.)
Everyone on our Cecil's Margin Service team loves the weeks we spend in Ft. Myers playing in the series. The only thing we don't like is the opening ritual when we have to argue about Raymond Fisher.
At the start of each week of competition, the Hobbs officials hold a meeting to go over rules and schedules and make last-minute eligibility decisions. And one team in particular—the Wylie Cooters from Wylie, Arkansas—never wants Raymond to play. Not all the Cooters. Mostly just Harley Huckleby, their manager.
Harley is a good example of the general rule that if you were an asshole when you were young, you usually don't outgrow it.
The Roy Hobbs World Series is 26 years old now. (The series is named, of course, for the conflicted and unredeemed villain in Bernard Malamud's The Natural, one of the best baseball books ever written. But the guy who founded the Hobbs organization didn't read books. He'd only seen the movie in which Roy ended up being a hero.)
The Series started out as a place for guys in their 20's and 30's and 40's to go to play baseball again. As this original group got older, older divisions were added so guys could compete against teams comprised of people their own age. A decade ago, when they started the over-60 division, even some of the players said that was crazy. No way were you going to find enough 60-year-olds who still could manage to play baseball. But the 60's division has thrived. A few years later came the 65's, and then the 70's. And now, the 75-and-over division is growing. Old guys all over the country still love baseball and eschew geriatric softball to stand in a batters' box and embrace the game of their childhood.
Raymond has been a member of the Cecil's Margin Service squad for almost 20 years and during most of that time was our best player. He was signed in 1951 by the St. Louis Browns as an 18-year-old high school senior from Cheney, Washington. Back then he was a tall, all-elbows-and-knees pitcher who could throw a fastball well into the 90s, a heart-stopping slider, and a changeup that was just unfair.
He worked his way through the minor leagues and actually played 60 days with the big club—which had become the Baltimore Orioles by then—when he was 23. A knee injury derailed his progress, but he kicked around professional baseball for another four years until he woke up someplace in the Mexican League one morning with an aching arm and a wounded spirit, and decided it was time to go home.
He went back to school and became a teacher and a coach in his home town, sending several young men out on professional baseball odysseys of their own before he retired.
Only in retirement did he take up the game as a player again. We'd been inviting him to play for years. His refusals were polite. Only once did he offer any explanation. "I gave my soul to this game and it broke my heart," he told me. "I don't think I could bear to get back on a pitching mound."
But one day a couple of summers into his retirement, we turned to see him sitting in the metal bleachers behind the chain link backstop at Cheney High School, watching us take a very ragged version of infield practice.
I handed my fungo bat to the catcher and walked over to the screen.
"I won't pitch," Raymond said, "but I think I'd like to play."
So we put him at first base and he was immediately the best hitter on the team. Playing against pitchers and defenders 25 years younger, he put up astounding numbers. As a group, though, we were much older than other teams in the league, so his efforts were negated by our collective limitations.
We didn't win much.
Most of the other teams appreciated that we were old guys still doing our best to play the game. They didn't take it easy on us, but they were respectful of our effort. One team, though, was comprised mostly of a bunch of 30-year-olds who hadn't yet come to realize that no matter what delusions they held about themselves, they were, like all the rest of us, relegated to playing baseball on high-school fields on Saturday mornings.
They ran up the score whenever they could. They demeaned opponents. They were amused by our failures. We were playing them in the next to the last game of that season and they were at their most obnoxious. Finally, in the eighth inning, Raymond walked over from his spot at first base to where I stood on the pitching mound.
"Give me the baseball," he said.
He took seven warm-up pitches. All fastballs that sizzled as the seams cut through the air. By the time he finished, everyone on the other team was up on the dugout steps, trying to understand what was happening.
"Batter up," the umpire said.
When he swaggered into the box, the would-be hitter sneered down to our catcher, Bob Cooper, "You'd just better be sure this old fart doesn't hit anyone."
"Well," Bob answered after Raymond buried his first pitch deep in the guy's ribs and the guy was writhing on the ground, "you're going to have to cut him some slack. It's been about 30 years since his last outing."
Grimacing, the batter got to his feet and limped to first base.
The next hitter stepped in.
Raymond threw a little harder that time, and the result was another rib injury.
The on-deck hitter helped his wounded comrade to his feet, and then seemed very uncertain as to the prospect of following in the footsteps of the two previous casualties.
The catcher trotted to the mound and I walked out from my spot in the dugout.
"You okay," I asked Raymond.
"Never better," he said.
"There's a league rule," I said. "You hit three guys you can't pitch any more that game."
"Okay," Raymond said.
Now, the umpire joined us in order to break up the conference.
"You look like you're having a little trouble with your control, there," he said to Raymond.
"No," Raymond said. "I'm not having any trouble with my control at all."
"Oh, well, okay," said the umpire, who himself had been suffering abuse from the brash young team all day. "But I'm not going to let this thing get out of hand."
"No problem," Raymond said.
The next hitter managed a weak ground ball to second base.
Raymond struck out the last five hitters he faced.
Raymond didn't take the field trying to intimidate anybody. He only wanted to play the game for which he had rediscovered some of his youthful passion. But, like Larry McMurtry's incomparable Capt. Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove, Raymond "would not tolerate rude behavior."
Raymond was from an era in which baseball was played according to a strict set of ethics all wrapped up around Respect For The Game. This involved playing hard, and a number of unwritten rules. It did not allow for "showing up" your opponents. In Raymond's era, the enforcer of all these unwritten rules was the pitcher. And at the level we played, Raymond's tools of enforcement pretty much overmatched the other teams' ability to retaliate.
Mostly Raymond got along fine with the guys on the other teams. They were, after all, people who loved the game just as he did. But getting crosswise with some folks was just inevitable. And some of them carried their grudges for years. Harley Huckleby, manager of the Wylie Cooters, was one.
The eligibility issue was Raymond's dementia, which began to weave its tendrils through Raymond's brain in his mid-70's. For a couple of years, it amounted to moments of simple confusion that Raymond laughed about. Then one Saturday morning, he threw a slider that the hitter swung through, and suddenly, Raymond didn't know where he was. We led him from the mound and his wife took him home. The diagnosis was Alzheimer's disease.
He was back the next week, hitting and throwing as well as ever, but the deterioration from that point was pretty rapid. And by the time he was 77, he just sat in the dugout and smiled.
"Please," his wife Paula asked me, "can he keep coming out? It's the one thing I think he looks forward to. I think he knows where he is when he's on a baseball field with all you guys."
"Of course he can," I said.
And for the same reasons, Paula brought Raymond to Florida. She dressed him in his uniform, and brought him to the dugout where the spark would return to his eyes and he'd greet each of us over and over, as if he hadn't seen us in years. Nobody minded. We loved the guy.
Our pitchers were each having a bullpen session at the end of our workout one day that year. We were throwing to our catchers, just to give the pitchers a feel for the hard, unrutted pitching mounds in Fort Myers that were so unlike the sand piles we threw from at home. Hitters were standing in the batters' box, not to swing, but just to give the pitchers one more note of authenticity. Each pitcher waited in a line off to the side of the mound for his turn to throw simulated counts to a couple of batters.
I hadn't noticed Raymond stand and walk from his place in the dugout, but I looked up and saw him at the end of the line, that blank smile shining on his sun-furrowed face.
As each pitcher finished his turn, Raymond shuffled one step closer to that big red bump on which he had invested so much of himself.
Finally, he stood at the back of the slope and looked down uncertainly.
"Hey, buddy," Fernie Sanchez said to him, "you want to stand up on the mound?"
Raymond stepped forward, but stumbled a little bit on the slope. Fernie and Stan LaMont each took one of his elbows and guided him up to the pitching rubber, where he stood and smiled and looked at the catcher before momentarily glancing down at his empty hand.
"You think he wants a baseball?" Fernie asked me.
I handed him a ball. Raymond stood and looked back toward the catcher.
By now everyone was gathered around.
"Go ahead, Raymond," one guy said. "Throw one if you want."
"No, don't let him do that," another said. "He might fall and hurt himself."
"Aw, we'll catch him. Let him try."
"Go ahead, Raymond," I said, helping him put my baseball glove on his left hand.
He leaned forward a little and stared more intently at the catcher.
"I think he's waiting for a sign," I said to Fernie, and then yelled, "Hey, Bob, give him a sign."
Bob squatted and put down his index finger.
Raymond nodded, brought both hands and the ball to his chest and then tucked his left knee up under his chin, his balance steady as a post. He kicked toward the plate, careful to keep his head and torso balanced right above the pitching rubber as his left leg made its long stride. His right arm moved in a smooth and graceful arc, reaching its apex above his shoulder. Then he drove off his back leg, landing with his head extended over his front foot while his arm finished its follow-through.
The ball found the catcher's mitt with a sound like a firecracker.
Raymond turned and wobbled on uncertain legs back up to the pitching rubber.
"My God," I said to Fernie, "I think he can still pitch."
"Bob," I said, "throw the ball back to him."
Bob cocked his arm for his usual crisp return to the pitcher, but then thought better of it. Instead, he made a soft, looping toss that bounced off Raymond's chest and fell to the ground in front of him.
"Well, that's a little bit of a problem," Fernie said.
I picked up the ball and handed it to Raymond.
"Call another one, Bob," I said.
Bob put down three fingers and Raymond responded with a slider that darted sharp and low across the outside corner of the plate.
Raymond threw for 15 minutes that day. He would stand smiling blankly on the mound. Bob would put down a sign. Raymond would transform and throw whatever pitch Bob called to wherever Bob located his glove. Then one of us would take the ball from Bob and trot it back to Raymond.
We never saw the belligerent side of the disease.
Around us, Raymond always had a smile on his face. But at home, Paula was having to deal more and more with Raymond's stubborn refusals to cooperate. That was her biggest concern about continuing to bring him to Florida for the series: that she would not be able to handle him during his moments of obstinacy. But the morning following his session on the mound, she was thrilled. The experience, she said, seemed to have calmed him. He was serene. He was happy.
So we had him throw a little bit after each day's game was over.
During the World Series in Fort Myers we play on pristine spring training practice fields, most of which have a bullpen mound adjacent to or a brief distance away from the dugout. Raymond would sit on the bench and smile during much of the game, but at some point in the late innings, he would go and simply stand on the bullpen mound, watching the action on the field.
Finally, near the end of the week. Fernie said to me, "You know, we ought to let him pitch in a game."
"How can we?" I asked. "He might get hurt. He might hurt someone else."
"Fuck, we're almost 80 years old," Fernie said. "We all might get hurt. And I haven't seen any sign of him being wild. He's on the roster, isn't he? Why can't he pitch?"
Bob was leaning into the conversation now.
"Okay, what about getting the baseball back to him?" I said. "He doesn't seem to have any idea how to catch it."
"Hell, let him throw to a couple of batters," Bob said. "I can just run the ball back out to him."
"I don't know, "I said. "Let me talk to Paula."
"Do you think he could do it?" Paula asked me.
"If we help him, sure. He throws the ball well enough that guys our age aren't going to hit it right back at him. If it's all right with you, if we get the right situation, I think we'll give it a try."
The opportunity came the next afternoon. We were getting killed. The other team was up by 12 runs in the fifth inning and we couldn't do anything right. Just one of those things that happens to every team now and again. The game was most likely going to end on the 10-run rule in a couple more innings, so I went to the other manager and explained the situation.
"You think he'll be all right out there?" the other guy asked.
"I don't know. But getting on the mound really seems to calm him down after he gets home. Makes things much easier for his wife. He's played with this group for a long time and he means a lot to us. We'd like to help him if we can."
The manager said okay and I waved for Fernie to bring Raymond out. Fernie guided him to the pitching rubber and put the ball in his hand. The umpire walked to the mound to see what was going on.
"I'm not sure about this," the umpire said to me.
"The other manager says it's okay," I said.
"Yeah, but what if he gets hurt?"
"What if any of us get hurt?"
"Well, I'm gonna' have to check with someone."
"Come on," Fernie said. "Let him throw to a hitter. If it doesn't work, we'll shut him down."
The umpire scowled and went back behind the plate. I patted Raymond on the butt and said, "Go get 'em big guy," and Fernie and I trotted to the dugout.
The umpire took his place behind Bob and said to both him and the hitter, "Just to make it clear to everyone, I think this is a bad idea."
The hitter looked out at Raymond, standing awkwardly on the mound with his blank smile, and said, "Give the guy a break. If he throws one at me I'll get out of the way."
Bob didn't say anything. He just squatted and put down one finger.
And the hulking, awkward, smiling old man on the pitcher's mound was transformed. His windup was flawless. He kicked into his long elegant stride and the ball streaked out of his hand, hissing as it came, and snapped into Bob's glove positioned on the outside corner at the batter's knees.
"Holy shit," said the umpire. "Um...that's a strike!"
"Maybe we should rethink this thing," said the batter as he backed out of the box.
"Hey, he hit my glove," Bob said. "You'll be all right."
He trotted out to Raymond to return the ball and trotted back.
The hitter still looked very uncertain.
"Look, I'll tell you what's coming, okay?" Bob said to him. "We're going to throw another fastball same spot."
"Anything wrong with that?" Bob asked the hitter.
"Yeah," he said. "I don't think I can hit it."
Bob ran the ball back out to Raymond.
"You up for a slider?" Bob asked upon his return. "We'll just put it in the middle of the plate."
The hitter popped it up to the shortstop.
And that's how the last two innings went. Raymond gave up a couple of weak grounders, struck out one, and then allowed a single to the leadoff hitter in the 7th inning.
When the shortstop took the throw from the outfield and brought the ball back to Raymond, the umpire said to Bob, "You've got to be getting a little tired running that ball out there like that."
"No, it's okay."
"Tell you what, if the other team doesn't complain, I'll let you have one of the guys from your bench stand off to the side of us. You flip him the ball and let him take it out."
So from then on, Raymond's two or three innings became a tradition each year. We would pick a time when we were either way ahead or way behind. And the tournament officials gave their blessing. We continued to let Raymond throw a little at the end of practice and as his overall condition deteriorated, Paula came to rely on the calming effect of those throwing sessions to allow her to keep Raymond at home rather than putting him in an institution.
Harley Huckleby and the Wylie Cooters were the only sticking point as far as the tournament went. Back in the days when Raymond was himself, Cecil's Margin Service and the Cooters played each other a number of times at the World Series and the Cooters never had any luck at all with Raymond. And now, every year, the one guy who objected to Raymond's mound appearance at the tournament was Harley.
"Geeze, Harley," one of the other managers said at the current year's managers meeting, "why don't you just let the guy play?"
"Because he doesn't have any idea where he is or what he's doing," Harley huffed. "He's a statue out there on the mound. He's gonna' get hurt, or he's gonna' hit someone in the head one of these days and hurt them."
"In case you haven't noticed, Harley, we're old men," someone else said. "A lot of us are like statues out there. Let 'im play."
A chorus of voices joined in agreement. And so, for another year, Raymond's status was safe. And like always, his couple of innings on the mound were amazing. They didn't change the outcome of the games. We were already way ahead or way behind. Nobody on then other teams minded at all.
Then we got into the playoffs portion of the week. On Friday, we won the morning game, and that put us in an afternoon game that would determine who went to Saturday's championship in our division. And, of course, the Friday afternoon game was against the Cooters.
I pitched that game, and we were doing pretty well, but we suffered a couple of injuries. We were down by only a run in the seventh inning when our right fielder pulled a hamstring. Then our second baseman, Tommy Chiaradio, hit one in the gap and tried to stretch it into a double. He knocked his artificial hip out of place sliding into second and couldn't continue.
Now before the game, Cy DePasqual, our best hitter, had called me up and told me he would be late. I asked him why and he said his wife Rachel—who herself was beginning to have some mental lapses—had gotten upset with him and hidden his teeth. Even at 83 years old, Cy was a vain SOB and he said he wouldn't play without his teeth. He said he would come as soon as he found them. But so far, he hadn't showed up.
So that left us with just ten players, including Raymond.
Now I wasn't about to have Raymond pitch in a game like this. I had no doubt that he could shut out the Cooters for a couple of innings, but that just might give Harley the ammunition he needed to disqualify Raymond from participation in the future.
I was still pitching okay. We had nine guys to play defense and we were only down by a score of 2-1.
Things moved along into the ninth inning. We were the visiting team. Our leadoff hitter walked, and then the second guy hit a single so we had runners at first and second. I was up next and I put down a sacrifice bunt, moving the runners to second and third.
That brought up Tommy Chiaradio's spot. According to the rules for the 75+ division, if a man was injured and you didn't have a deep enough bench to replace him, you didn't have to take an out when you got to his spot if you didn't have anyone else available. You just skipped to the next hitter in the order. But when our next hitter got to the plate, Harley Huckleby was all over him.
"He's not up yet," Harley yelled at the umpire, running from the first-base dugout to the plate.
"They had an injury. They're skipping that spot in the order," the umpire explained patiently.
"If they do that, this guy will be batting out of order," Harley said.
By now I was back at the plate and I entered the conversation. "Harley, we had an injury..."
"And you've got a man on your roster who is sitting on the bench," Harley said. "You can't just skip the spot in the order if you've got a man to fill it."
"Wait a minute," I said. "Raymond can't..."
"If he can stand on the mound, he can stand in the batters' box," Harley said. "Every time I complain that he shouldn't be out there 'cause he might get hurt, you say that any of us might get hurt. Well, you can't have it both ways."
The home plate umpire waved at the base umpire and walked out to the infield to meet him. They conferred, and then the plate umpire came back and said to me, "I think that technically if you've got a guy on the bench he's got to hit, or we've got an out."
What Harley expected me to do, was accept the out, and then bring Ken Keeson to the plate with two down. Ken hadn't hit a lick all week, and Harley knew it. But now I was mad.
I walked over to the stands and asked Paula if she minded if we had Raymond bat. She agreed, saying he'd always loved to bat.
So Fernie and I led Raymond up to the plate. Maybe, I hoped, the pitcher would walk him. Fernie got a bat and I positioned Raymond's hands and wrapped his fingers around the handle. Then we propped the bat on his shoulder.
Raymond smiled and stared off toward right field.
The umpire called, "Play ball," and the Cooters' pitcher delivered a careful strike across the heart of the plate.
Raymond didn't move.
We watched with grim foreboding from the bench. What we didn't see from the third base dugout, though, was Raymond's reaction when the ball popped into the catchers' glove. His smile faded into a thin-lipped slit and his eyes shifted toward the pitcher.
"Go right after him!" commanded Harley from his side of the field.
The pitcher nodded.
But as he began his windup, a marvelous transition occurred. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, Raymond's stiff-legged stance resolved into bent-kneed perfection. His gaze shifted from the outfield as he turned with bright, knowing eyes toward the pitcher. The bat ticked up off his shoulder and his grip softened, fingers caressing the handle.
A warning signal flashed in the pitcher's brain as he watched this transformation during his windup, but he was too late. He was already committed to another fastball that would cross, fat and inviting, over the heart of the plate.
Raymond uncurled himself and struck like a snake. The sound of the bat on the ball echoed through the empty stadium and the centerfielder hurried back to pick it up where it rolled to a stop near the warning track.
Both runs scored easily.
But Raymond didn't move. He just put the bat back on his shoulder, looked out toward right field and smiled.
The Cooters' centerfielder relayed the ball into the shortstop, who whirled and threw it to the second baseman, who covered the bag in expectation of a runner to tag. When no runner appeared, he turned, saw Raymond still at the plate, and threw the ball to first base where Raymond was called out.
It didn't matter. We were ahead by a run. The Cooters came to bat in the bottom of the 9th, but none of them reached base. No way was I going to let anyone take that win away from Raymond. I struck out one guy and got the other two to pop up. We didn't win the championship game the next day. But we still had plenty to celebrate.
It doesn't look like Raymond will make the trip to Florida again. Paula said he was calm and contented for weeks after they got home. But that awful disease just kept sinking its claws deeper and deeper, and over the winter she had to take him to an assisted living facility where he sits in a wheelchair and really doesn't take notice of much of anything anymore.
When I visit, I don't let myself get too distracted by the guy in the wheelchair, though. Before I leave, I always take Raymond's hand in mine and close my eyes and see the magnificent athlete that he was uncoil one last time and drive a baseball hard into the left-centerfield gap.
Like Raymond said, when he was young, he gave his soul to the game, and it broke his heart.
But when he was old, for just a moment, the game gave it back.